Twenty fingers flit flawlessly across the keys in rhythmic unison. Hannah Wang and Clara Gerdes are a study in comfortable precision as they glide through Mendelssohn’s wide-ranging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture for what could be the 200th time.
The performance for a handful of media types and family members in an empty Dana Auditorium at Queens University of Charlotte is a far cry from the tense environment of four days earlier, but the girls’ contrasting styles are a constant: Clara’s unflinching concentration, Hannah’s controlled animation.
Such unfailing dedication and advanced complementary talents – hallmarks of some of the most successful duos in history – have made the girls national champions.
The judges’ decision was announced with the six competing teams standing onstage at the Music Teachers National Association Senior Piano Duet finals in Anaheim, Calif., on March 10. “They called our names and I think I squeaked a little bit,” Hannah recalled. “And then I looked at Clara and then we both squeaked together.”
A winning match
They wouldn’t have reacted any other way. It was mostly together that the girls had practiced for several hours a week since September, at their respective homes or at Queens; together that they coordinated their schedules in order to fit playing time into their crammed days of school and extracurriculars; together that they talked about the ways big and small that they could pair and maximize their vast talents.
“There’s no way you can do this unless you’re good friends,” said Clara, a home-schooled AP student who lives in Davidson. “There’s too much contact and communication, things you have to want to do together.”
That includes worrying. As the girls climbed from the state competition (where they admittedly made some mistakes) to the regionals and beyond, so did their stress level: “On the national level as we advanced, our expectations for ourselves got higher and higher,” said Hannah, a junior and IB student at Myers Park High.
“By the end of it, we were expecting a perfect performance from ourselves. ... we were sweating over every single note, making sure it was perfect.”
Paul Nitsch, professor of music at Queens and the girls’ instructor throughout the competitions, said the 16-year-olds showed impressive maturity in how they handled the pressure of the finals without him to become the first winners from the nine-state Southeast region in the event’s six years. He had committed to play a concert in Virginia.
“Being on their own gave them the freedom to do what they wanted to do without my overseeing every little detail,” he said. “It forced them to make their own decisions.”
He and the girls chose their two pieces, which they were required to play throughout all levels of the competition: the Mendelssohn work and “Sonata for Piano Four Hands,” by Paul Hindemith. The girls found the Mendelssohn piece on the Internet; their instructor had played the sonata as a student.
Both pieces presented different challenges for the girls, who showed their versatility by taking a different side of the bench for each work. “For example, in some sections of Mendelssohn you’re both playing really fast notes at the same time,” said Clara. “If we get even one note off, the whole thing falls apart.”
The slower notes in the Mendelssohn piece can pose problems as well. “The slower it goes, the harder it gets,” Nitsch said. “So I finally just had one of the kids put their hands on top of the other’s hands, and they practiced a chord, and then the other one in reverse so they could see how the arms move.
“And then you had to choreograph that they moved their arms the same height at the same speed, so that when they’re going down they land at the same time.”
All the right signals
When the girls – or any other duos – perform, there’s much more going on than the sounds produced. Various physical, verbal and subtle forms of communication can make or break a performance.
Although it’s not visible to most people, the girls talk to each other. “All duos have to communicate verbally, because there are some things that aren’t pre-planned that you have to do on the spot,” Hannah said.
Added Clara: “To cue new tempos I would go, under my breath, ‘One thousand, two thousand’ ... and sometimes on the slow chords, we’ll say ‘and’ together to get timing down. We also have to share use of the pedals, so a lot of the time we’ll be knocking the other’s feet out of the way. So you have to coordinate movements on the pedals, which takes planning.”
One of the least-considered aspects of teamwork is turning the pages for the score, a subject that drew feigned exasperation from the girls.
“There can be problems with that,” Hannah said. “We can bump arms a lot. As long as it doesn’t, like, ruin the sound, I don’t think it matters that much to judges.” Clara said, “Whatever person is playing the slower and possibly less demanding part turns the page at that point.”
Because they realized the importance of presentation and style, the girls’ and their teacher’s penchant for detail extended to when they weren’t seated at the bench.
“It’s important,” Clara said. “At the regional level, the judges liked it that we came in and bowed before we played. We got three separate comments on that.”
The presence of family at the finals was an added thrill for the girls. Mary Womble Gerdes, Clara’s mother, said tears came to her eyes when the result was announced because of the amount of hard work she knew was involved.
“They really enjoy it. They work hard, but they love it,” she said. “And it’s a really great friendship they have.”
Hannah’s mother, Qing Ming Chen, said the girls’ intensity increased when they got to California for the finals. “They were off practicing for hours,” she said. “They were really into it. ... It’s hard to find two girls who mesh so much with their piano skills, and then their friendship.”
The girls got a little Hollywood treatment when they flew home on March 12. Two Charlotte TV crews greeted them after the five-hour flight.
“The one chance I get to be on TV, and I end up looking like I just died on the flight,” Hannah said. “But it was all worth it.”